The Swimmer Fight or Flight response – Why I am nervous about practice every. single. time.)


Last night, I couldn’t swim.

Okay, technically that’s not true. My arms moved. I rotated. I did something with my legs, maybe, and I managed to breathe.

I knew before going in that it was going to be “that kind” of swim day.

My nerves were as engaged as my core even before I got in the car.

Sometimes, you just know it. There’s a feeling inside you, which may, of course, be a cycle of self-defeating energy.

Sometimes, you just don’t have the swimmer inside of you.

And if I’m truly honest, I have to admit that the swimmer doubt, the swimmer insecurity, the “what if I can’t”, is a part of every single time I swim.

I have been swimming with my incredible team for nearly 14 years.

And yet, every single time I know I have to head to practice, I reconsider.

There are a million other things I could do instead.

I should empty the dishwasher. I should sit on my butt and have a glass of wine while watching funny animal videos on YouTube. And isn’t it time we had a “family night?” and doesn’t that mean to go swimming would be bad and selfish parenting? Also, those socks aren’t going to pair themselves!

Instead, every time, I get in the car.

I love my team. Love the coaches (Thank you Bob and Russ!), love my teammates, love the feeling I get from swimming and from pushing and challenging myself.

And part of me hates it too.

There are many articles about how to manage anxiety before competition, but few about how to manage the nerves that come from the seemingly simple act of deciding to swim.

Yesterday, I had a new swimmer arrive at my pool.
She was early, as newbies often are, and so I went to the car to greet her.

“Oh,” she said, slightly startled, “I thought I could just sit here in the car and be super nervous until it was time.”

I gave her my standard line of “I know! Because I am super scary.”

Then we laughed, she relaxed, and we walked down to the pool together.

She is not the first swimmer to talk to me of her nerves. Often, I have swimmers tell me that they want to cancel almost every single time, much like I want to drive home instead of to the pool where my team practices.

Some of these are swimmers who have been working with me for years. Or rather, we’ve been working TOGETHER for years. And they feel exactly the same way I do when I head to a warm and welcoming team that is a kind of home for me.

Some people do cancel. They “reschedule” 4 or 5 times before making the leap and actually coming for their first session. And I totally get it.

There is something about the act of making yourself vulnerable that can be paralyzing.

And when we choose to swim, we make ourselves vulnerable every single time. In a million different ways.

We wear a swimsuit in front of friends and strangers! We push ourselves physically and fear the embarrassment of failure. (We often forget that there is no failure if we are trying and while we may put particular pressure on ourselves for things like interval times, if we don’t make an interval time, so what??) We try new things. We feel competitive, which may be an entirely new feeling.

All of this contributes to anxiety. And it’s a reason that mental fortitude is such a large part of the swimmer’s experience.

Getting in that car and heading to the pool is an act of defiance, a means of pushing back against the self-defeating thoughts that can paralyze us.

Last night, those thoughts, which usually dissipate as soon as I hit the water, stayed with me as a I swam. Who was I to think I could do this? What made me think I belonged on a swim team? Ha! I’m not an athlete!

I had gotten my butt in the car, despite all desires not to on a cold and rainy day, gotten myself into the locker room, onto the pool deck, made it through warm-up, and still considered running away. Heading home. Doing anything but this.

But I stayed. I DID drive to the pool, DID put on my suit, DID get in the water, and I stayed there. Despite how hard it felt. In every. single. way.

I may not have put in the best technical performance, but pushing through means that the next time I have to do so in an open water race, I can.

When I compete in open water, I second-guess myself at many points. (If you’re interested, I’ve written about this in greater detail before. You can read it HERE.) I didn’t build much of my physical strength last night, but mental strength? For sure.

By the middle of last night’s swim, I was starting to feel like myself again. My arms suddenly knew what to do in the water, and I could feel my core. (Where had it been hiding all practice?) My legs still didn’t kick much—but that’s standard for me. (yes, I know Bob!)

By the end of practice, I could have kept going, done more swimming, and felt even a bit disappointed that we ran out of time before we could finish the last set.

One of my lane mates noticed the change.

“Sydne’s coming back!” he said at one of our breaks at the wall.

And I was. I was even having fun!

And I will keep coming back, no matter what the nerves tell me to do. At least, that’s how it’s been for 14 years.

I hope you all keep coming back too.